Saturday, February 12, 2011

Creating Documentaries

Another great panel from last years Public Television Quality Group's Boston Quality Workshop was on Creating Documentaries. This panel featured Producer Michael Kirk, Cinematographer Ben McCoy, and Editor Chad Ervin talking about their experiences producing content for PBS's Frontline.

Michael Kirk has been with Frontline since it's inception, and has produced over 55 episodes for the program. Cinematographer Ben McCoy has been working with Michael for almost as long, and is an expert on shooting what Kirk described as "guilty buildings." Editor Chad Ervin joined the group just a few years ago, stepping in to, as Kirk described it, "replace the previous drummer."

Ben McCoy adjusting lighting for an interview

The great thing about this presentation was that there was really three parts to it:

Ben did a live lighting demo, showing how they like to light their subjects using minimal lights; he started with the standard three-point lighting setup, and reduced it down to two lights, adding reflectors and gauze to make the lighting soft. They also like to have the background out of focus, so they set the camera a good distance back from the subject, and then zoom in on the person.

When there are pieces of narration explaining background events, they often build up a visual sequence to illustrate or counter-point the narration. Chad demonstrated a couple of different examples of building up a sequence, starting with the narrative (i.e. how the financial markets collapsed), finding a variety of clips to use (in this case, starting with an aerial view of New York and cutting to the stock exchange floor), then layering in the narration, music, and multiple layers of sound effects (sirens and rattle snakes are particularly effective for creating tension!) In one sequence there were fifteen different layers of sounds.

Michael Kirk

Just as interesting was Kirk's description of the process of producing an episode. The following are some quotes:
We [produce the shows] with all the resources available to us, considering the following facts: Frontline usually assigns us films in Washington and New York, two of the most hideous places in the world to work; you’ve seen one building you’ve seen them all, except when Ben gets done with them.
They are also films about people who don’t want to talk to us in any way. Dick Cheney never answers my phone calls.

[on shooting interviews] We try to get everybody to look the same; the people we like, the people we don’t like. We like them to be really warm, we like them to be friendly looking, we like the background to not be a background, and we like to be able to Avid push-in at critical moments, so we’re shooting at a high enough light level that everything doesn’t deteriorate.

I push on every interview inside the film; we’re [doing] a 20% Avid zoom on everybody so that the film will feel inexorable. You don’t know it, but every shot has a little bit of a push on it. It drives the people in post who have to build our shows crazy because the renders are amazing on an hour or a two hour film.

I don’t like cuts and I don’t like dissolves. In our editing room we operate under the adage, if you can’t solve it, dissolve it. So we don’t dissolve because we think we can solve it one way or the other.

We cut fairly fast for hour long and two hour long documentaries. We cut for about eight weeks. A week or two of it is ingesting, there’s two weeks afterwards which is post, but we’re trying to get the rough cut in about six weeks and fine cut a week later.

I’m always stunned that more television documentary makers don’t use black and white photos. I understand that they’re expensive, but with what you can do in After Effects and the way you can move inside the Avid, and the colors you can create and the intimacy and especially if you’re doing a narrated film, my god, the idea that you’re not watching a piece of B-roll or watching a guy walk down a hall, but you’re seeing the Presdient angry or lively, and you re hearing about him as you’re pushing into his eyes and face. We did it for the first time in 2000 in a film we did for ABC news called The Clinton Years, and they had all the photographs for free from Clinton’s photographer, and I sat there and I said, “all the rest of my life I’m going to use this as a tool.”

I always tell people we interview; "I'm here to make a commercial about you and your position. We light you the best you've ever been lit," but I also say, "what you need to know is that I'm also going to do that for your opponent. I'm here to make a commercial for your ideas and their ideas and put them in conflict with each other so that the audience can decide. And the thing you need to know," and I say this to everybody, "your opponent on this issue was very good yesterday. It's important that you're as good."
The other thing that I tell them is that "I promise you that you may not like what we do, but I'll make this promise to you," I did it with Jack Kevorkian, I've done it with lots of people, I've said, "I'll come to your house, and watch the film the night that it airs, and if you don't like it, you can punch me in the nose," and he's the only one that every really wanted to.

At the end, someone asked what drives you to do this?
We're unemployable in any other field
- Chad

QGPT: Quality Group Public Television

NotesOnVideoMark Schubin @ The Boston Quality Workshop
NotesOnVideo: The 24p debate: Part I and Part II